Amidst the strangest GCSE and A Level Results Days schools have ever experienced, it is important that we take a moment to congratulate our candidates on their achievements. They may not have taken the examinations, but to imply that they do not deserve their success would be unfair. They have lost enough already. So amidst the national outpouring of anger, let us not forget that examinations are only the final staging post in a two-year course of study. Equally, to suggest that teachers across the land plucked the results of their students out of thin air undermines their professional expertise and the days of work that went into collating the evidence for this summer’s results. So when I say ‘Well done!’ to the GCSE and A Level Class of 2020, I mean this just as much as in any year.
As a school, however, we have decided not to share our headline GCSE or A level results online. We would, in these unusual circumstances, prefer to share quiet moments of celebration with individuals. It was frustrating as a Head to see some schools posting historic increases in their A Level results when the national story was about how students from disadvantaged backgrounds had been particularly unfairly penalised by the algorithm. Penalised because their schools could not offer small cohort subjects like music and classical languages. Penalised because their schools were bigger. The bigger the cohort, the more significant the impact of the algorithm.
I doubt that the algorithm deliberately set out to turn the clock back on social mobility; but even if it were a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy, the effect of the algorithm last Thursday on disadvantaged young people up and down the country was unforgivable and will not be quickly forgotten. That nobody seemed to have checked the impact of the data on types of school is worrying and clearly unjust – and that the Secretary of State for Education claimed to have only discovered the potential unfairness last weekend is mind-boggling.
On the other hand, young people from all types of school saw injustices in last Thursday’s A Level results. 81% of Heads in my professional association, HMC, reported clear evidence of injustice in the 2020 results. Students downgraded to a D from a B because an outlying D grade lurked in the historic 3-year data set used to calculate results. Entire subjects downgraded to results below their 3-year average. I even heard of two schools, one state and one independent, who reported the worst results in their schools’ history!
People are now seeking someone to blame and there are calls for a public enquiry. Lord Falconer, shadow attorney general, has even called the system devised by Ofqual ‘unlawful’. Students at A Level will in some cases end up having to take a gap year, putting further pressure on applications for 2021 entry. Students across the country have been affected, favourably or adversely, by the approach their own school took to moderating grades, and yet there appears to be no recourse to appeal. The university sector is in disarray with some highly selective institutions struggling to find the additional capacity to honour all the offers they made, and others facing financial uncertainty because their students have suddenly abandoned them to pursue a better offer.
Was this preventable? Yes and no. The failure to plan for additional university capacity was a mistake and students were misled. They were told universities would be flexible, but this was not their experience. The appeals process was a joke. And the algorithm was applied with the sensitivity of an ox. But those problems aside, I challenge any of us to come up with a fundamentally better system to award grades this summer. Perhaps the Royal Statistical Society, but they were forced to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements when they offered to advise Ofqual and, understandably, they decided to call it a day.
The real question, in my view, is who cancelled the exams? I don’t hear that question being asked very often and yet that decision has created a complete mess. We would no doubt say there was no alternative but is this really true? We managed to get thousands of children back to school in June. June is peak examination month. Had laptops been available to students who needed them, students could have continued preparing for their exams. Schools could have had small numbers of students in to complete coursework. We could have recruited a national army of school invigilators so examinations could take place in smaller rooms to prevent the risk of transmission. What did other countries do?
Germany went ahead with its Abitur. Italy cancelled written examinations but held hour long oral examinations instead. The Netherlands submitted school exam results but allowed students who wanted to improve their grades another chance to take them. France cancelled the Baccalaureate but created 10,000 new university places in anticipation of additional demand. They had an army of local juries assessing students’ performance to award grades as fairly as they could and they were comfortable with a 7% increase in the pass rate for the Baccalaureate as it was the sensible route to take in the circumstances.
Of course, one country’s solution may not work in another. The hierarchical nature of our university system means the French approach to university places probably wouldn’t have worked, even if it was what we have ended up having to do at short notice in our most competitive universities. And because our university system is hierarchical, grades really do matter to university admissions departments – as we saw when they showed little flexibility if students dropped even just one grade, despite their promises of showing understanding. And in Britain, unlike other countries, some our most high performing schools are ones you have to pay for. But, whatever our educational landscape, the failure to plan, the failure to anticipate problems, the litany of last-minute confusion, the failure to deliver for young people, that’s what I suspect we will still be talking about for some time.
I really could not make any claims about South Hampstead High School being able to do a better job. The challenges were significant and complex, far more so than a few waspish comments from a frustrated Headmistress would suggest. I for one would not like to be in Gavin Williamson’s place and I am sure he has a very challenging job.
But I am proud of our record during lockdown, albeit considerably more excited about seeing students return fully in a few days. I hope that by early September my memories of the recent chaos at national level will be overtaken by the sight of happy faces, and the sound of purposeful classroom conversation. I cannot wait!